Sermon preached on Easter 2 'Low Sunday' 2004, by The Reverend Dr Joan Crossley
In the National Gallery in London there is a painting which always makes me feel very queasy. It shows the Disciples gathered around the resurrected Jesus and a man is poking his fingers into a horrible gaping wounded in Jesus’ side. You can almost hear the squelch! The man is Thomas, known to history as Doubting Thomas. Thomas the baddie who called the Resurrection of Jesus into question. Nasty Thomas who wanted to see for himself, rather than believe the word of the other disciples. Thomas who has become a byword for disbelievers. But has Thomas had a bad press? Should we re-examine the evidence on Thomas called the Twin. Let us consider the facts. (weekend spent watching Poirot on TV).
Thomas doesn’t only appear in this crucial episode. He is mentioned on two other occasions, both in the Gospel according to St John, although we infer that he was present on many other occasions. In John 11, Thomas and the other disciples are informed by Jesus that he has knowledge that their very dear friend Lazarus has died. Jesus says “I am glad that I was not there, so you may believe. But let us go to him” Now Jesus and the disciples knew that to go to Bethany, so near to Jerusalem, was to take them into the very most dangerous place. So when Thomas says, “let us also go that we may die with him”, Thomas is declaring himself willing to die with Jesus? Hardly the words of a coward who was afraid to commit! Thomas displays willingness to put himself into the way of danger, and shows himself to be a passionate and committed follower of Jesus.
On the second occasion when Thomas, it is Maundy Thursday. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus is cramming in many profound and beautiful prophecies, trying to teach them all they would need to understand the future without Him. Thomas intervenes after Jesus’ mysterious remark about going somewhere to prepare the way. It is Thomas who objects “Lord, we do not know where you are going – so how can we know the way?” Do you suppose all the other disciples knew what Jesus meant ? Of course not! We must assume that they were puzzled, confused, doubtful and afraid. They were probably all shuffling their feet with embarrassment at not keeping up. Only Thomas, had the courage to say what they were all thinking – that they didn’t know what Jesus meant. Thomas’ question paved the way for Jesus’ wonderful answer- “I am the way, the truth and the Life”.
So we gain a very positive image of Thomas, courageous, very much Jesus’ man, a man of honesty who is willing to sacrifice his pride in order to learn the truth. With this knowledge in mind, we turn back to the story narrated in this morning’s reading from the Gospel. The disciples were in utter disarray, having been shattered by the loss of Jesus in such a horribly brutal demeaning way. The story that Jesus had some how come back to life, had been seen by witnesses was related to Thomas. What must have been his feelings? Perhaps he was angry that their hopes should be raised in such a ridiculous manner? Perhaps Thomas felt joy at the prospect that Jesus had cheated death? He had been present when Lazarus was brought back to life – has something similar happened to Jesus? He does not know. But he is not willing to just go along with the crowd. He has to see for himself.
Eight days later Jesus again appeared to the disciples and this time Thomas was there. Jesus obviously knew what Thomas had said about the need to touch and see the resurrected Jesus for himself, because Jesus immediatly offered him the chance! We can perhaps imagine Jesus’ eyes twinkling as He held out his wounded hands to be inspected.
In an instance, Thomas assured himself that the thing he most wanted to see was true, that the beloved master was back. He was in no doubt as to what the resurrection meant – it meant that Jesus was His Lord and His God! An acclamation which took a leap of faith and courage to make. We of course are comfortable with equating Jesus with God but it was a new concept for the men who had known Jesus as a carpenter turned preacher, teacher and healer.
Jesus does not seem to be annoyed by Thomas’ need to know for himself. The passage is of great help to all who ask the question – was Jesus a ghost? Was He perhaps a product of the imagination of the distraught followers? The proof that Thomas had the courage to ask was offered in the most concrete way. Jesus chided him gently that there would be many who would believe without being given the chance to touch, see and hear Jesus in bodily form. But of course we don’t need to because Thomas asked the question on our behalf.
Doubting Thomas should be renamed Honest Thomas. His inclusion in the ranks of the disciples was part of Jesus’ plan. Without him, vital evidence about the Resurrection would be missing, key questions would have gone unasked, key answers never made. The presence of Thomas reminds us that Christianity demands that we must engage with our minds as well as our hearts, that Jesus is unafraid of close scrutiny and gives us the freedom to question. Ours is a religion for adults with brains, which we are invited to use to think for ourselves. Faith goes badly wrong when its followers are forbidden from independent thought, and history teaches us that frightened rulers often try and control the people by forbidding the asking of difficult questions. Thomas is a helpful reminder that although Jesus is our shepherd, He doesn’t want or expect us to be merely sheep.